Canberra Stadium, Canberra
The RaboDirect Rebels were given a masterclass in ball protection by the Brumbies in Canberra on Saturday night, as the weight of the home side’s possession saw them break through some sloppy Melbourne defence for four first-half tries.
The Rebels tried to force their way back into the match on the rare occasions when the ball did come their way, but without the composure that comes from building sustained attacking momentum they entered a vicious cycle, turning the ball over through handling errors almost as soon as they had won it.
Captain Gareth Delve said his side’s performance was “very disappointing”.
“We just weren’t at the races. That first 30 minutes especially, we just didn’t get off the line and make our tackles”, said Delve.
“No excuses, tonight we just didn’t come out and implement what we’ve put in place”.
The Rebels looked unsettled from the very start of the match, with the Brumbies’ unyielding control of the ball frustrating the visitors. Unable to win back possession or prevent the home side’s relentless forward momentum, the Rebels repeatedly breached the offside line and were duly punished by referee Craig Joubert. Christian Lealiifano slotted two early penalty goals to give his side an early lead, before Danny Cipriani countered with a huge kick from 53m.
Unfortunately getting points on the board did nothing to calm the Rebels and bring back some structure, as the host’s first try of the night came soon after. The Brumbies flooded the midfield channel from a lineout deep in Rebels territory and centre Pat McCabe brushed off a tackle from his Wallaby team-mate James O’Connor to score under the posts for a 13-3 lead.
But while the Rebels were happy to try and rein in the deficit with an O’Connor penalty, the Brumbies were looking for greater rewards. After kicking for a lineout in the corner, the Canberra side struck again when flanker Michael Hooper broke through the disorganised Rebels’ defence from a rolling maul.
Another try followed just two minutes later, after a fantastic kick chase from the Brumbies won them back the ball with the Rebels in disarray. While the desperate scrambling defence stemmed the tide for a few moments, eventually lock Sam Fardy burrowed over from short distance.
Things got even worse for the Rebels when Delve was sin-binned 10 minutes before half-time, the captain ultimately paying the price for his side’s repeated breakdown and offside infringements. The Brumbies quickly capitalised on their numeric advantage, with their own skipper Ben Mowen benefitting from McCabe’s strong run and offload to score his team’s fourth just before the break.
The Brumbies were content to sit on their 30-6 lead for much of the second half, but while the Rebels continued to battle and did win some sustained possession, it seemed the harder they tried the less things went their way. Mistakes in the scrum and lineout were compounded by further handling errors, and although the Rebels defence seemed able to handle the more subdued Brumbies attacks, eventually another missed tackle gave Fardy his brace and his team their fifth and final score.
A trip to the nation’s capital awaits the RaboDirect Rebels this week, as they take on the leaders of the Australian conference, the Brumbies, in a game that could turn out to be a milestone in the 2012 FxPro Super Rugby season for both teams.
A win for Jake White’s men on Saturday night is crucial if they wish to capitalise on their early-season success and stay in the race for the finals, especially with a tour of South Africa looming. Coming into this game with two consecutive losses, however, the Brumbies were no doubt perturbed to see the Rebels’ resolute 34-22 victory over the Blues last Thursday night.
That staunch performance at AAMI Park sees the Melbourne side leave for Canberra glowing with confidence, and hungry for their third win of the season. Should they knock off their opponents on Saturday, the Rebels will have already matched their 2011 win tally with more than half of this year’s regular season fixtures still to be played.
The Brumbies’ scalp is one the Rebels already own, and proudly, after the two-time former champions became the first ever Super Rugby side to fall in Melbourne. Over 14,000 Rebels fans erupted in celebration as Danny Cipriani’s last-minute penalty handed his side a famous 25-24 victory in just their second game.
While there has been some high-profile departures from the side defeated that day, namely Wallabies Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper, the Brumbies did manage to secure equally noteworthy arrivals in former Springbok coach White and his new Assistant Coach Steven Larkham.
The man who led his national team to victory in the 2007 World Cup appears to have combined brilliantly with the talismanic former Wallaby five-eighth so far, the pair consistently coaxing out impressive performances from a team that some thought would struggle without their big-name players.
However, like all successful rugby teams, the Brumbies of 2012 are built upon a strong core. Prop Ben Alexander and hooker Stephen Moore have over 100 test caps between them, and their tireless captain Ben Mowen leads the side from the back of the scrum at No. 8. Sniping half-back Nic White seems to be linking well with both his forwards and stand-off Christian Lealiifano, who has proven himself to be an extremely reliable goalkicker and game manager.
And while most observers were already well aware of the running threat posed by Wallaby centre Pat McCabe, Jesse Mogg has quickly made a name for himself in his debut season as a formidable counter-attacking fullback.
Once again the Rebels’ defence will need to step up to the task, showing great speed off the line to put the pressure back on the attacking side and force mistakes, but without sacrificing their structure.
With more world-class scrummagers to face this week, the Rebels’ set piece must also be braced for the challenge – a strong scrum and lineout are vital to give the lethal Melbourne backline the best possible chance of cutting through the Brumbies’ own defensive wall.
And as always in rugby, success in attack will be built upon a concerted effort from the forward pack to protect the ball in phase play, suck in defenders and build momentum for the team. The Rebels had the ball for only a third of the match against the Blues – just imagine what they could do with more.
A crisp autumn evening can always be expected in the unshielded Canberra Stadium, but the Rebels will forget all about the elements on Saturday night, with the chance of a record-equalling victory against their nearest rivals their one and only focus.